“Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque”

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

A collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, published in 1994. The original publications of the stories range from 1980 to 1993. I read a library copy. (Thanks, library!)

2.5 out of 5 stars. (Rating a short story collection is tricky. I would rate four of Haunted‘s stories at 3 stars or above, and the other eight stories below 3. Because I weigh entertainment above quality of writing, I went with an overall slightly-below-average rating.)

I’ve read very little of Oates’s work. Embarrassingly little, considering how prolific her career has been. What I have encountered shows an ability to pull off almost every genre and a extremely strong, confident quality of writing.

The best story in Haunted is “The Premonition,” where an incredible amount of tension is built with subtlety and allusion. The reader comes away knowing exactly what has happened, even though the main character has no idea. A neat trick in a short story.

Many of the stories lack some essential thing to make them satisfying or engaging to the imagination. Unclear plots and vague, anticlimactic endings are littered throughout. If one of these stories doesn’t grab your interest within the first couple of pages, you can safely move on. The stories that start well end well; the slow ones never gain speed. The only exception to this (in an unfortunate way) is “The White Cat” which builds fantastically and then fizzles at the end.

I’ve split up my notes by story:

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“Zero K”

Zero K

 

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

The newest novel by Don DeLillo, published last month. My excellent local library came to the rescue again.

The Plot:

Jeffrey Lockhart travels to a compound to see his dying stepmother before her cryonic preservation (cryonic is low-temperature preservation; cryogenic is the study of). His father wishes to take the same path. Jeffrey is disturbed by the idea of leaving a known life (and death) for an ambiguous stasis and future and he thinks about this, off and on, while thinking about other things. And doing a couple of things. And thinking.

2 out of 5 stars.

I was excited for this. Zero K sounded like a return to the deathfear, consumerism satire of DeLillo’s earlier works (see my Running Dog review for more DeLillo talk). I hoped it might hum like White Noise.

Walk away if you’re expecting the same. Read White Noise again.

Zero K does not a traditional narrative. The plot, as presented, ends up mattering very little. This is a series of thoughts and vignettes, loosely linked. Some stunning prose comes across the page but I felt no emotion, heart, depth, or connection to the characters.


 

[1] Vocabulary:

They stood behind a set of bollards designed to keep vehicles from entering the immediate area.

(p.5)

bollard

noun – a short, thick post on the deck of a ship or on a wharf, to which a ship’s rope may be secured.

(British) a short post used to divert traffic from an area or road.

[2] An early DeLillo touch which kept me optimistic. (I stayed optimistic until around the halfway mark; much longer than I should have.)

I was not Catholic, my parents were not Catholic. I didn’t know what we were. We were Eat and Sleep. We were Take Daddy’s Suit to the Dry Cleaner.

(p.15)

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Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings

What do I mean when I say “Reading Journal”?

It’s the notebook I carry around when I read. I keep track of every book, noting sentences/paragraphs that catch my attention. There are several ways a passage can do this:

1) Fantastic writing; I like the sentiment expressed

2) Poor writing

3) A word or reference I’m not familiar with

4) Plot/continuity error

5) General confusion

In Reading Journal entries on this blog, I introduce the book, give a short plot description/overview (with rating), then share passages with comments explaining why they caught my attention. (If I share a passage without any comment, that means I think it’s great and I simply want you to have to joy of reading it.)

When giving Vocabulary definitions, I use Google results (and I believe Google uses the Oxford Pocket English Dictionary). When explaining References, I use Wikipedia unless otherwise noted; in those cases I link to the site.

YOUR ONE AND ONLY SPOILERS WARNING: I don’t go out of my way to reveal plot points but I don’t go out of my way to avoid them, either. If a scene I want to discuss happens to contain the death of a main character, it will end up in a post. If you’re interested in reading one of these books and don’t want the plot revealed, stop reading the post once I start quoting from the book.

LANGUAGE WARNING: I will never censor a book. I will use the exact language of the author when quoting their work. I also toss in my own light curses in reviews, though I try not to go full-tilt. In any case, the subject matter will occasionally tread toward R territory (and usually hovers around PG-13). I will not give warnings in specific reviews.

RATING SYSTEM: I rate on a 5-star scale (half stars are possible). My thought process at each star:

1 star: I couldn’t finish the book because of poor writing and/or disinterest in plot. If I did get through the whole thing, it took effort. I would actively talk people out of reading it.

2 stars: Some essential balance of elements was off; often a well-written book with a boring or confusing plot. I finish it feeling that my time was wasted. Would not recommend.

3 stars: Probably won’t read again but my time wasn’t wasted. Good/competent on most marks (though poorly-written books with entertaining plots can grab a 3). Recommendation comes with conditions (“Only read if…”).

4 stars: Above average quality of writing and above average plot/execution. Recommended. Would read again. Will add the author to reading rotation.

5 stars: High quality of writing. Amazing plot/execution. The kind of book I want to own and will push on people. Will actively seek out other books by the author as soon as possible.

I use the same guidelines on Goodreads (though they don’t allow half-star ratings). To give an idea of how I balance my ratings, of the books I read in 2015:

8% rated at 1 star

20% rated at 2 stars

33% rated at 3 stars

32% rated at 4 stars

7% rated at 5 stars

In 2016:

6% rated at 1 star

34% rated at 2 stars

33% rated at 3 stars

18% rated at 4 stars

9% rated at 5 stars

Back to the show!

“The Devil in the White City”

Devil White City

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Journalist and author Erik Larson’s fourth book, published in 2003. My library still keeps four copies of this in circulation (and at least two or three are always out). With a movie in the works, this is likely to remain true for some time.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

This is a narrative nonfiction telling the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair from two perspectives: Daniel Burnham, the architect commissioned to plan and build the city and H.H. Holmes, a charismatic serial killer.

In narrative nonfiction (also called creative or literary nonfiction), the author uses research and facts to construct an entertaining story, often developed with the beats of genre fiction. It makes for interesting, engaging books for people who want to learn something without suffering through a dry, academic text.

But I wonder about the legality of narrative nonfiction. It is understood that authors will take some liberties with the subject to make a more engaging story (filling in gaps in time; explaining thoughts, feelings and motivations of people they have no way to communicate with). Some of it seems like deliberate deception. Larson does a good job of citing his sources (in the Notes and Sources section at the back of the book) and he also explains when he has fictionalized events. He does not tip the reader off in the narrative when he’s employing full-blown guesswork, though. He just dives in:

[Holmes] removed the apron and rolled down his sleeves. The chloroform and his own intense arousal made him feel light-headed. The sensation, as always, was pleasant and induced in him a warm languor, like the feeling he got after sitting too long in front of the hot stove. He stopped the chloroform, found a fresh cloth, and walked down the hall to Pearl’s room.

(p.149)

In the Notes, Larson says about the above passage:

Holmes left no firsthand account of the method he used to kill Julia and Pearl Connor; nor did he describe how he managed to subdue both victims (…) I constructed the murder scenes in this chapter using a combination of sources: fragments of known evidence (…); the detective work of other investigators (…); statements made by Holmes after the murders; psychiatric research into the character, motives and needs of criminal psychopaths; and testimony at Holmes’s trial as to how a person would react to an overdose of chloroform.

(p.404)

Larson has done a tremendous amount of legitimate, thorough research. But the fabricated sections (Holmes’s day at the fair with his wife and sister-in-law, other murders, etc.) stand out in the book in an unpleasant way. If you pay attention, you can tell when you’re entering bullshit-land. It sits weirdly in a book with an otherwise measured and well-evened tone.

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“Running Dog” (Post 2/2)

 

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(Someone didn’t think to take two different pictures before returning the book to the library…)

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/2


 

[20] DeLillo manages to be very descriptive and evocative while using an accessible vocabulary. I only needed to look up three words in this book. Word choice is the biggest difference between DeLillo and David Foster Wallace; I have thirty pages of vocabulary notes from Infinite Jest. I understand this was part of Wallace’s style but it makes his work less effective as a narrative (I can’t remain immersed when I need to look up definitions every page). It also makes DeLillo one of the more accessible modern “literary” authors.

Vocabulary:

It was suspected to be a drug operation with a thriving sideline in black-market piasters.

(p.84)

piaster

noun – a monetary unit of several Middle Eastern countries.

[21] A good character introduction is a rare and wonderful thing.

Mudger wore a blacksmith’s apron and heavy-duty gloves. He was a thickset man with curly hair trimmed close, with ash-blond eyebrows and a strong jaw, slightly jutting – the picture of a man who wouldn’t yield easily to aging. His eyes were a fine silky blue. He had a bent nose, broadly columned neck and something of a surfer’s numinous gleam – his eyes and hair and brows shining just a bit, as though bleached by the elements.

(p.89)

[22]

He laughed, eyes not leaving her face. She judged him to be the kind of man deeply pleased by the appreciation of others. He would be a studier of faces, eager to gauge people’s reactions to things he said. Robust men were always like this.

(p.92)

[23]

“History is so comforting,” he told the man. “Isn’t this why people collect? To own a fragment of the tangible past. Life is fleeting and we seek consolation in durable things.”

(p.104)

[24] This is an example of good stage direction (what I call the movements of characters’ eyes, hands, arms, legs, etc. while conversing). I have a crutch of giving characters cigarettes or drinks as props. I always appreciate an author who can make movement feel organic or significant.

She leaned well forward, peering at him, her hands hanging down over her knees, almost as though she was getting ready to slip off the end of the ottoman, an impromptu comic bit.

“Who are you, Selvy?”

He sat back in his chair, an intentional countermotion, a withdrawal, and smiled in deep fatigue, self-deprecatingly. He appeared to be disassociating himself from whatever significance the question by its nature ascribed to him.

(p.110)

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